Stanley Roberts 1 | Charlotte Observer

Former professional basketball player Stanley Roberts walks the LSU campus, passing by the statue of friend and former teammate Shaquille O’Neal on August 17, 2022 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Former professional basketball player Stanley Roberts walks the LSU campus, passing by the statue of friend and former teammate Shaquille O’Neal on August 17, 2022 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Special to The State

Last November, Shaquille O’Neal performed a DJ set at a club in Baton Rouge and invited Stanley Roberts — his old college teammate — to join him.

Roberts didn’t want to go.

It’s not that Roberts has anything against O’Neal. He adores him. O’Neal was one of his closest friends during their time together at Louisiana State University. It’s just that — decades removed from his glitzy NBA lifestyle — the 52-year-old Roberts doesn’t care much for nightlife anymore. He doesn’t like clubs. He doesn’t like alcohol, and he especially doesn’t like being around a bunch of drunk, dancing college kids. On most nights, he’s already asleep in his Baton Rouge apartment by 9 or 9:30.

That doesn’t mean Roberts is shy. He can talk for hours; he’s a charming storyteller who speaks without the slightest glint of dishonesty. Roberts laughs, and laughs often, at both his mistakes and his triumphs, the kind of ringing, deep-bellied laugh that can get an entire room cackling. But for all of his magnetism, Roberts is equally enigmatic: He’s a 7-foot, 300-plus-pound teddy bear who loathes being the center of attention.

Born just outside of Columbia in rural Hopkins, Roberts grew up in a mobile home on Congaree Road. At his core, he’s always been an easygoing, Bible-toting country boy, who never intended to play basketball, who tried to quit his Lower Richland High School basketball team more than once, but his mother would never let him.

Instead, Roberts channeled his massive frame, married it with freakish God-given ability and grew into something mythical — one of the greatest high schoolers to ever play basketball in South Carolina.

All of Hopkins pinned their hopes on this young man. Everything Shaquille O’Neal became, Stanley Roberts was supposed to be: an all-star, a world champion, a hall of famer, an icon. Roberts reached the NBA in 1991, played for the Orlando Magic. Then came the trades. The injuries. The depression. The partying. The drugs. And then — the suspension.

A 2002 Sports Illustrated feature on Roberts, titled “His Own Worst Enemy,” opens with the line: “Big men can’t hide.” But for most of his adult life, Roberts has tried. And tried. And tried again.

As Roberts phrases it, he likes to “stay in the shadows.” When a failed drug test effectively ended his NBA career in 1999, he spiraled. He isolated himself. Embarrassment kept him away from Hopkins, his hometown. In the last 20 years, he’s only been back a handful of times. He works an every-man job now in Baton Rouge, makes a steady living, enjoys his alone time. For him, anonymity is peace.

If it were up to Roberts, his story, his name and all his troubles would vanish from the internet. He’d love nothing more than to fade from the public consciousness. In South Carolina, 30 years after his playing days, he already has.

But big men can’t hide. Not forever.

And especially not from Shaquille O’Neal.

The DJ set

When O’Neal came to Baton Rouge for his DJ set last year, he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. O’Neal enlisted the help of Wayne Sims, another former LSU teammate, and his wife Faye Sims to try to twist Roberts’ arm.

The Sims are two of Roberts’ best friends in the world, and they live in a house about five minutes down the road from him. They told Roberts they wanted to see O’Neal perform and they needed a designated driver.

“Look, I’m gonna tell y’all right now: I don’t want to go. I’m not gonna have fun. I’m gonna be in a bad mood all night,” Roberts said, half-jokingly, when he pulled into the Sims’ driveway that evening. “Do not expect nothing else.”

O’Neal was smoking hookah backstage when Roberts, the Sims and Stanley Roberts Jr., one of Roberts’ four children, stepped in with their VIP passes. Surrounded by hookah smoke, ping pong tables and 20 boxes of Papa John’s pizza, O’Neal sprung from his seat the moment he saw Roberts step into the room.

“I was just asking about you,” O’Neal said, wrapping his arms around Roberts, two 7-footers embracing.

O’Neal escorted his old friend around the room, introducing him to each member of his entourage, telling them: “This is the man that taught me everything.”

The DJ set was uncomfortable. Roberts stood in the front row, along with his son and the Sims, and every few minutes, O’Neal would look up from his turntable, make direct eye contact with him and contort his hands into a beating heart symbol in front of his chest.

Midway through DJing, O’Neal introduced Roberts to the crowd, calling him to join him on stage. Roberts was mortified.

“I went up, I gave him a hug,” Roberts said, “and then I went to the back corner of the stage where nobody could see me.”

After the show, a flustered Roberts tried to slip quietly back to his truck, tried to escape back home to the safety of his bed. But O’Neal followed him to his car. He wanted to see what Roberts was driving.

“I appreciate everything you did for me in college,” O’Neal told him. “You showed me the way. I just want to show my appreciation.

“I’m gonna buy you a truck tomorrow. I’m gonna call you around 3:30.”

Roberts’ eyes grew wide, he started shaking his head, saying, “No, Shaq. You don’t have to do that.” He’s never been one to accept gifts. Never.

“Stan, I’m not joking with you,” O’Neal continued. “Answer your phone tomorrow when I call you.”

Again, Roberts shook his head. O’Neal had tried this kind of thing before. Twenty years ago, when Roberts was out of the NBA, out of work, out of money, O’Neal took him to dinner in Los Angeles and handed him an envelope stuffed with cash. Roberts wouldn’t take it. No matter how many times. O’Neal tried to hand it to him.

But O’Neal wasn’t going to give in so easily this time.

“Stan,” O’Neal said again, with a sterner look in his eyes. “You better answer your mother(expletive) phone tomorrow.”

Stanley Roberts.From archives.JPG File photo The State

Lower Richland roots

The first road trip Roberts took in the truck that O’Neal bought him — a glistening black Ford F-150 XLT — was to his hometown of Hopkins.

He made the 10-hour drive from Baton Rouge in mid-December, about a month after O’Neal visited. The Sims came with him. Faye packed a cooler full of snacks and beverages and sprawled out in the backseat. Wayne sat shotgun, trying to keep his eyes open while Roberts cruised along the interstate.

Unsurprisingly, it took some convincing for Roberts to make the trip. He can count on one hand the number of times he’s been back to South Carolina since his NBA career ended. But there are still people in this state who love Roberts, who miss him, who don’t want his legendary high school career to be forgotten.

Jo Jo English — a former South Carolina Gamecock, NBA player and a teammate of Roberts’ at Lower Richland — is one of those people.

“He is the best high school basketball player to come out of the state of South Carolina,” English recently told The State. “I don’t care what anybody says.”

English means it. When Lower Richland hired him to be the boys basketball coach last summer, he accepted the job on one condition: He wanted Stanley Roberts’ No. 53 Lower Richland jersey to be retired.

With the support of Richland School District 1 and the Lower Richland Alumni Foundation, English set a jersey retirement ceremony for Dec. 17. Together, they established a scholarship in Roberts’ name, given to a senior leader on the Diamond Hornets after each season.

“No disrespect to any other high school basketball player out there,” English said. “But as a high school basketball coach, I go to these other gyms and I see guys’ jerseys retired, and I’m familiar with their athletic career. And I’m like, ‘If Stanley Roberts’ jersey is not hanging up in a building in South Carolina, something is wrong.’

“Something is completely wrong.”

In all of Roberts’ humility, he describes his high school career as though he were Bambi on ice. He said he was awkward in his 7-foot frame, always worried about tripping over his feet and falling in front of the crowd. After his very first varsity game his sophomore year, Roberts sat at his locker, with his head down, thinking he was awful. His perplexed head coach, Jim Childers, approached him.

“Stanley, do you realize you scored 18 points?”

But that’s how easily the game seemed to come to Roberts. Not only was he gigantic in stature, but Roberts possessed a naturally soft shooting touch. He made his free throws. He could make his jumpshots. He wasn’t often asked to shoot 3-pointers, but he had the range to do so. Give him the ball in the post, and no one could stop him. In his junior and senior years in 1987-88, he led the Diamond Hornets to back-to-back state titles.

Not only did Roberts make waves across the state, but the rest of the nation took notice. The Diamond Hornets ranked as one of the top teams in the country. For the first time ever, ESPN cameramen had a reason to travel to small-town Hopkins, to capture this 7-foot phenom on film. College coaches from all over the country flew to the Diamond Mine to watch Roberts play from the bleachers. The Midlands grew into such a basketball hotbed that Lower Richland and rival high school Eau Claire sold out the 12,000-seat Carolina Coliseum twice.

A lifelong Columbia native, Carey Rich is a former USC team captain and current staff member for the Gamecocks. In the years since he’s played, Rich has become an ambassador for basketball in South Carolina and especially for basketball in the Midlands. A few years ago, he helped start the summer SC Pro-Am in Columbia. He routinely hosts former high school and college players on his podcast, and he tries to educate a younger generation of basketball players on the greats that played before them.

Rich never played with Roberts. But he was one of the hundreds of kids in the Midlands whom Roberts unknowingly inspired. In his eyes, Roberts has always been a hero.

“Stanley Roberts took it to another level — to where he made Columbia, South Carolina into a destination,” Rich told The State. “And he’s not as revered as I think he should be. And for me, it’s centered around one thing and one thing only: Unfortunately, he didn’t have the long, decorated NBA career that a lot of people thought he would have.

“And unfortunately, I think he’s assessed and judged by that. But even if he didn’t have that long, decorated NBA career, like most of us anticipated he would, it still doesn’t take away from what he did as a high school basketball player.

“It doesn’t take away from what he did for the state of South Carolina.”

‘You’ll be one of the greatest’

Michael Jordan had already played seven seasons and won an NBA title with the Bulls when the Orlando Magic visited Chicago on March 21, 1992.

That was Roberts’ rookie season. The Magic selected him with the 23rd overall pick in the 1991 NBA Draft, with visions of him becoming a cornerstone player and their starting center.

Those visions never became reality — but there were flashes. Roberts will never forget that March 21st game in Chicago. The Bulls were up big in the third quarter, a lead so big they felt comfortable sitting Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant on the bench.

That decision would prove costly.

All of a sudden, Roberts and his Magic teammates found a rhythm. They’d race up the court, pass the ball to Roberts down low, and he’d put it in the hoop. Then they’d make a stop on the other end, race down the court and pass it to Roberts again. Dunk after dunk after dunk. Roberts estimates he might’ve dunked four possessions in a row.

By the time Jordan, Pippen and Grant checked back into the game in the fourth quarter, Roberts and the Magic had wrestled control of the lead. There was no coming back. The Magic won 111-108, and Roberts finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in just 26 minutes on the court.

After the game, Jordan and Pippen walked into the road team locker room and found Roberts sitting at his locker. Jordan put his arm around Roberts’ shoulder.

“Man — good game, Big Stan,” Jordan told the rookie. “You play like that every night, and I guarantee the sky’s the limit.

“You’ll be one of the greatest players to ever play this game.”

Anyone who saw Roberts on a basketball court in those days — even Michael Jordan himself — could see that Roberts was dripping with talent. Even as a teenager, Roberts had the look of a future hall of famer.

“He was actually better than Shaquille,” an 86-year-old Dale Brown told The State.

Brown coached the LSU men’s basketball team for 25 years, including the one season Roberts and O’Neal overlapped in 1989-90.

“(Roberts) just didn’t have that killer instinct,” Brown continued. “He was just such a nice person. I called him in the office one time and told him, ‘Do you recognize how good you are? You’re better than Shaquille.’ In fact, when they played in practice, Shaquille couldn’t stop him.

“But Stanley was just one of those old country guys. I can see him sitting in one of those rocking chairs, just happy and smiling, kind of content.”

Considered a master motivator, Brown could never seem to find the right button to push with Roberts, no matter how many buttons he tried. At the same time, no matter how often Roberts skipped class or engaged in late-night shenanigans, Brown could only get so angry. He doesn’t know how anyone could meet Roberts and not love his candor and authenticity; Brown calls him “pathologically honest.”

One night, while conducting a bed check in the LSU dormitories, Brown found Roberts sipping on a beer in his dorm. Brown scolded Roberts, snatched the beer and poured it down the sink. And as Brown turned to leave, Roberts reached under his bed and pulled out a gym bag stuffed with more beer cans.

“Coach,” Roberts said, handing him the bag. “You might as well take these, too.”

Roberts played parts of eight seasons in the NBA, but he never reached the heights so many people had envisioned for him. Ironically — and somewhat cruelly — the Magic traded Roberts to the lowly Los Angeles Clippers after one season in Orlando. And they replaced him with the first pick of the 1992 draft: Shaquille O’Neal.

The alluring nightlife and celebrity lifestyle of Los Angeles proved dangerous for a young Roberts, who’d spend many nights drinking until sunrise, running in some of the same circles as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. He remembers meeting actor Woody Harrelson at Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s Malibu mansion, remembers partying with Magic Johnson and the R&B group, Color Me Badd. That’s just a small sampling.

A giver at heart, Roberts would lend money and invest in businesses created by so-called friends, only to never see the money again. He shuffled through cars: a Mercedes-Benz 600 class, a BMW 740. At one point, he had nine people living in his Los Angeles home, including his drug dealer. In his eight-year career, Roberts estimates he might’ve blown through $30 million to $40 million.

“He was really kind of like a walking angel to a certain degree,” English said. “He was more so happy when other people were happy around him — when he could do something for other people. And I think that, especially when he got to the NBA, some people took advantage of that without question.”

After Roberts’ NBA career appeared over and his money dried up, Brown pulled a few strings and lined up a gig for Roberts with the Harlem Globetrotters. Brown remembers sitting with Roberts for breakfast one morning, telling him about the opportunity, when he made an emotional confession.

“Stanley, if I had any kind of talent at all, any kind of talent in coaching, it was that I always felt I really cared for players, and I thought I could motivate them,” Brown told him. “But I really failed miserably with you.

“When I called you into the office, Stanley, and I told you, ‘You are better than Shaquille,’ did you think I was lying to you?”

Across the breakfast table, tears rolled down Roberts’ cheeks.

“Coach, I believed you,” he replied. “I just never believed in myself.”

A shattering dream

The suspension came swiftly and unceremoniously.

By that point, in 1999, Roberts’ NBA career was already flickering. Injuries had mounted. He played one full season with the Clippers before rupturing his right Achilles tendon. Then, a year later, he ruptured his left Achilles. Then came the fractured discs in his back. Then the torn rotator cuff in his shoulder. Roberts bounced from the Clippers to the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Houston Rockets in an attempt to resuscitate his career.

In 1999, he had planned to suit up for the Philadelphia 76ers. Then-coach Larry Brown signed Roberts in the hopes he could mentor a bucking bronco by the name of Allen Iverson.

But Roberts never had the chance. Just before the season started, Roberts flew to Houston to gather his belongings, and as he so often did in his 20s, Roberts succumbed to peer pressure. At a Houston get-together, someone handed Roberts the tiniest sliver of an Ecstasy pill and convinced him to take it.

When he returned to the 76ers, to his horror, he was selected for a drug test. Before he could ever play a game, an NBA executive called Roberts into a meeting, told him that he failed the test and that he was indefinitely banned under the league’s new collectively bargained rules. Before Roberts even left the arena, news of his drug suspension scrolled across the bottom ticker of ESPN. His phone kept ringing.

A few weeks later, Roberts flew to Los Angeles for a child support case for one of his four children he shared with an ex-girlfriend. Roberts had never considered himself a drug addict. He’d use cocaine socially — often with the women he dated. He’d smoke pot. He’d drink. But he never thought he had a problem.

After the suspension came down, Roberts figured, “Everyone already thinks I’m an addict. I might as well lean into it.” He remembers going to a strip club in L.A. after his child support case, drinking the entire night, snorting cocaine and getting back to his Sheraton hotel room at 4 a.m.

Eyes red, nose running, head banging, Roberts sat on his hotel bed, pulled open his curtains and watched the sun rise over the LAX airport. All the while, tears gushed from his eyes. He sobbed until boarding his 9 a.m. flight. He didn’t know where that flight would lead. He didn’t know what was next for him. All he had ever known was basketball. He had never worked another job in his life.

In that moment, Roberts thought back to a prayer he made midway through his NBA career, when the injuries had already started, when NBA coaches did nothing but deride him for being out of shape and overweight, when the joy of the game had left him. Raised a devout Christian, Roberts had asked God to take His hands off of him, to allow him to live his life, to do what he wanted. He had always been the kid who carried a Bible in his backpack, who tried to spread God’s word and attend church every Sunday like his mother taught him to. But after he left home, he grew tired of praying, tired of serving and giving. He needed a break from God, and he had gotten exactly what he wished for.

Now, in that Sheraton hotel room, Roberts asked God for forgiveness, to direct him back on the right path, to give him some sort of sign.

Wearing sunglasses and headphones, Roberts boarded the plane at LAX at 9 a.m. and sat down in first class. He tried to keep a low profile. He hoped no one would recognize him.

A few minutes went by, and a middle-aged Black woman sat down next to Roberts. She was a Delta airlines stewardess, but she wasn’t working this flight. Roberts kept his sunglasses on, kept listening to his music, kept trying to hide. But this woman wouldn’t stop staring at him. She didn’t recognize him; she had no idea this man sitting next to her had just been banned from the NBA.

But she recognized his pain. Something told her this man was hurting.

“The Lord told me to tell you that you’re not alone,” she told Roberts, once she coaxed him to take his headphones off. “He’s got you. He’s with you. Do not give up.”

The two chatted for the rest of the flight. When they landed for a layover in Utah, she told Roberts to call her if he ever found himself doubting God again.

“She gave me her card and her personal number, and I was just astonished,” Roberts said. “So that’s when I started my journey back towards God.”

StanlyRobertsBatonRouge.081722_024_MJ.JPG Stanley Roberts keeps a large poster of the 1989-90 LSU basketball team in his Baton Rouge home. It shows Roberts (53) and his friend Shaquille O’Neal. 8/17/22 Michael Johnson Special to The State

‘He’s just Stanley’

It’s a sweltering, humid mid-August afternoon in Baton Rouge, but Roberts has taken refuge in the icy air conditioning of TJ Ribs on Acadian Thruway, one of his favorite restaurants.

The Southwest egg roll appetizer was spot-on, like always, and now Roberts is poking around his lunch bowl with a fork, eating the last remnants of his chicken salad.

“The truck’s parked right out there,” a grinning Roberts says, wiping his face with a napkin, “the one that Shaq got me.”

It’s almost time to get back to work. For the last nine years, Roberts has worked in human resources for the Baton-Rouge based company, APTIM, hiring workers for industrial plants, chemical plants and other sites. He’s constantly on the phone with welders, pipefitters and other craftsmen, interviewing them, setting up their paychecks, scheduling their drug screenings.

Structure is good for Roberts. He sticks to a daily routine, finely crafted over his near-decade at APTIM. Every morning, Roberts wakes up at 4 a.m., showers, then reads that day’s entry in his one-year Bible. He pulls up an app on his phone — with both a daily Old Testament and New Testament verse — and texts those verses to each of his four children. Then he drives to the office, gets there around 5:30 a.m., and usually stays until after 4 p.m.

On this day in August, Roberts has a little more leeway. There’s a slight gap between projects and a more relaxed atmosphere because of it. He can take a longer lunch.

Chicken salad now complete, he walks out of TJ Ribs, his head scraping the top of the doorway, and he steps into his Ford F-150 XLT. Now nearly a year old, it’s still got that new car smell. It’s shiny and clean.

The APTIM office isn’t far down the road, a small industrial-looking, trailer-like building. Roberts pulls the truck into a gravel lot, then walks up a wooden ramp and steps inside. Only four people work in the building, and Roberts has his own office with a nameplate on the door.

Louisiana native Kelvin Burns, Roberts’ boss, has the office right next to him. He remembers walking in the building for the first time two years ago, after he was hired, not yet knowing anything about his employees.

When he saw the “Stanley Roberts” nameplate on the office next to his, he stopped and took a double take. He peered inside and saw a massive 7-foot man sitting at his desk, LSU posters on his wall.

Burns didn’t know how to react other than to pretend to shoot a basketball with his hands, mocking a jumpshot. Roberts just looked back at Burns, laughed, and nodded: “Yeah, that’s me.”

“About an hour or so after that, I started making phone calls,” Burns told The State, laughing. “Guess who my office is next to. I’m sitting next to Stanley Roberts.

“So of course, my brother remembered him. My nephew and all of them remembered him. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m working with him right now!’”

In the time since, Burns and Roberts have developed such a tight-knit working relationship that Roberts fills in as the boss when Burns is on vacation.

Roberts has that same kind of relationship with his coworkers, who are always teasing him, telling him, “Now you’re normal. You ain’t no NBA superstar anymore.” A laughing Roberts usually responds: “Superstar? If anything, I was infamous.”

Now in her 10th year with the company, Tamnoika Ursin still remembers Roberts’ first day on the job, when everyone in the office crowded by the door, trying to figure out who this giant man was walking in.

“I Googled him,” Ursin told The State. “That was my first thing. I’m like, ‘I gotta see who this person is.’ And then from there we’ve had like a brother-sister relationship.

“It really taught me that professional athletes and celebrities are really just normal people. He just wants to live a normal life. He’s a celebrity in everybody else’s eyes, but not mine. He’s just Stanley.”

After a couple hours of trading stories and making a few phone calls it’s time for Roberts to get back in his truck and make the trek home.

Nearly 800 miles from the mobile home he grew up in on Congaree Road, Roberts lives in a modest apartment complex on the outskirts of downtown, each apartment adjoined with the one next to it. It’s nowhere close to the lavish lifestyle he once lived in Hollywood, but it’s more than enough. He doesn’t miss that life.

Before he parks in front of his unit, Roberts swings by the communal mailbox and drops in a thick envelope. He’s not sure how, but kids still track down his address, sending him basketball cards to sign. Sometimes they’ll send him a stack of 10 or 12 and he can’t help but laugh.

Cards delivered, he turns the key to his apartment: Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room. In the very back corner of the place, a giant 1989-90 LSU team picture leans against the wall. A college-aged Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts stand side by side in the back row of that picture, nearly identical in height. O’Neal wearing No. 33; Roberts wearing No. 53.

Roberts has all sorts of trophies, NBA pictures and commemorative basketballs scattered about. But his most prized possession is his recliner, positioned right in front of a curved LED TV.

Most nights after work, Roberts will pick up a takeout dinner, bring it home and eat while he watches a movie or two. He unabashedly loves Marvel movies and animated films, like “Shark Tale.” He has a subscription to Disney-Plus. Around 6:30 or so, he’ll take the prescription sleeping aid Ambien — the only drug he ever touches these days — and drift blissfully to sleep.

Decades after his NBA career, after the fame, after the drugs and the tears, the simplicity of a recliner and a television brings him peace.

This wasn’t the life anyone predicted for Stanley Roberts, but this is home.

Michael Lananna specializes in Gamecocks athletics and storytelling projects for The State. Featured in Best American Sports Writing 2018, Lananna covered college baseball nationally before moving to Columbia in 2020. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2014 with a degree in journalism.
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